As with babies, kittens are not born understanding about the world and how to behave. The best time to teach them is during the primary socialization period, which is roughly from 2 to 7 weeks of age. This is when kittens are most open to new experiences and are thirsty to learn. After this time they become more cautious of new people and situations and their behavior is less malleable. Well-socialized kittens are more likely to grow up to be friendly adult cats who are easy to handle and not overly frightened or stressed. Lessons not learned by 7 or 8 weeks of age can be partially but never fully recovered.
When socializing your kitten(s), it is important to remember that exposure is not the same as socialization. Having a screaming 4-year-old pick up and drop your kitten could well cause the cat to be afraid of children for life. But meeting several young children who are calm and handle the kitten appropriately can lead to a cat who adores kids.
If you have a litter of kittens at home, begin handling them as soon as possible. There is no truth to the idea that a mother cat will reject her kittens if they are touched by people. However, mom cat needs to be okay with you petting the kittens in order to avoid accidentally teaching the kittens to be stressed by petting (if mom does seem to be too anxious for the first few days try petting them while she is out of the room or sleeping). Gentle petting and holding for just a few seconds several times each day is ideal for newborns. The kittens should be picked up and held in different positions for brief periods each day by about 2 weeks of age. As they get older, it is okay to handle them more frequently and for longer periods of time. Once they are about 5 weeks old, more people should be interacting with them. Behaviorists recommend they meet at least 100 people during the primary socialization period. A variety of people is needed for optimum socialization: young, old; male, female; wearing glasses; wearing a hat; light-skinned, dark-skinned; animated, laid-back; etc.
Socialization should intensify at around 4 weeks of age by:
- Introducing new textures by playing with the kittens on carpeting, tile, wood, blankets, rugs, concrete, etc.
- Exposing the kittens to household noises such as blenders, doorbells, banging pots, washing machines, alarm clocks, stereos…If there are no children living in or visiting the home but it is important for the kitten to grow to be a cat who likes kids, buy a cd with the sounds of children and play it frequently. Very loud or harsh noises, such as a blender, can be muffled initially by covering the appliance with a towel or making the noise while the kittens are in an adjacent room.
- Placing items, such as winter boots, skateboards, bags of groceries, books, or a lunchbag, on the floor for the kittens to investigate.
- Offering a variety of objects for the kittens to play with, including empty plastic bottles, balls of paper, cardboard boxes in different sizes and paper bags without handles, as well as commercial cat toys.
- Providing a scratching post and playing with the kittens around it. Laying the post on its side for the first week or two may allow for easier access for young kittens.
- Continuing to handle the kittens daily, including touching every part of their bodies.
- Putting the kittens in a carrier and going to a friend’s house for a brief play-and-cuddle session. If no one is available to host, simply go outside and come back in or go for a drive around the block. Play with the kittens as soon as you return home. Doing this at least once a week should help to prevent a cat who fights going into the carrier and makes veterinary visits a chore.
What if you adopt an 8- or 9-week-old kitten that hasn’t been socialized? All is not lost. The kitten can still benefit from the above but she won’t learn as quickly and may not be as comfortable with as many things as a well-socialized kitten. Start by working on the two or three things that you believe are most important for her adult life and then add the others later.